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The Wire, Treme, and Civil Societarianism

July 7, 2009

The dramatic theme of The Wire isn’t explicitly stated until the final season, when Clay Davis marches up the courthouse stairs to his trial, carrying a copy of Aeschylus. (That the show’s creator, David Simon, had this in mind from the get-go is revealed in the show’s Bible.) It’s a real break from the show’s hyper-realism–I can’t imagine a State senator carrying a Greek tragedy, cover facing out–but what Davis says to reporters in his defense animates the whole series–namely, that no good deed goes unpunished. With Clay Davis, the irony here is delicious. 

In fact, this theme forms the backbone of the Wire pilot episode.  The dramatic question of McNulty’s plot line is whether or not he’s going to pursue justice or follow the chain of command. Barksdale breaks the witnesses, the case against D’Angelo falls apart, and Judge Phelan wants to know why. If McNulty keeps quiet about it, the bureaucratic machine would continue on in its predictable grind. But here–yes, it is a ironic tragedy–McNulty makes his unwise decision. He tells Phelan everything: Barksdale’s connection to the murders, the lack of case work. In short, and in the words of the Bunk, “There you go Jimmy, giving a f**k, when it’s not your turn to give a f**k.” 

That encapsulates the Chain of Command philosophy and I gather it’s why the show resonated so well with libertarians. The Chain of Command is public choice economics symbolically enhanced: malignant incentives pervade public institutions and warp their function. If you can advance your career, and make everyone worse off in the process, then you will.  (For libertarianish reactions see Robin Hanson and Patri.) 

As a huge fan of the show, I’m very excited to see David Simon’s next project,  a show set in New Orleans. It’s called Treme and it’s about how neighborhoods in the city are getting on post-Katrina.  Word’s out that HBO picked it up for a whole season. Should be good. The linked article gives Simon’s vision for the series: 

It’s a metaphor for where we are in America right now’  [Simon] said the story should resonate with Americans considering the recent economic downturn. He compared Americans’ faith and reliance on the nation’s economic structure to New Orleans’ faith and reliance in the city’s levee system, both of which have proven to be “more fragile than anyone ever assumed.”

Since Simon’s avowedly left-wing and radical, it’ll be interesting to see how his political beliefs inform the characters and plot lines of Treme. (The title refers to a musically rich neighborhood and community in New Orleans.) Since this blog dreams for a land of a thousand nations and a million resilient communities, I hope Simon gets the chance to read Sanford Ikeda and Peter Gordon‘s work on New Orleans, especially an article entitled “Power to the Neighborhoods.”  They write:

As New Orleans rebuilds, city officials have an opportunity to redirect their efforts away from the misguided policies of the past and toward the promise of private neighborhood associations (PNAs). Such organizations would aid the re-emergence of New Orleans as a “living city”— one that generates its economic growth from its own local economy. A network of PNAs would create many different kinds of communities with a variety of rules, fees, and services among which people can pick and choose. New Orleanians could vote with their feet without leaving the city.

We’ll have to see how David Simon portrays it, but Gordon and Ikeda give lots of evidence that top-down urban planning and chain of command style leadership exacerbated the hurricane’s fallout. It occurs to me that their response to this is in line with what Arnold Kling has called Civil Societarianism. (I would edit Simon’s levee metaphor: New Orleans’ misguided faith and reliance on the city’s levee system is comparable to Americans’ foolish reliance on the Federal government.) Another thing that comes to mind, is that post-Katrina New Orleans will offer a miniature test of sorts for Mancur Olson’s views on stability and the accumulation of interest group politics. Will the city get an institutional reset? In some ways, there is some evidence it has. One example: The hurricane destroyed the credibility of teacher’s unions and eliminated their influence. Now the city is a hot bed of education reform. Charter schools are flourishing. Let’s hope Simon’s show isn’t blind to these facts.

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